The Real Reason America Has Never Had A Female President
A perfect storm of media bros, internalized misogyny, and "risk-averseness" is keeping voters from opening their wallets and minds to female candidates. It doesn't have to be this way.
Welcome to Hindsight 2020, Refinery29's column reflecting on the women running for president and the lessons learned (or not!) from 2016.
When you have conversations with people, few will admit that they think a woman president is a bad idea, in theory. In fact, many will enthusiastically say "it's time" for a woman in the White House. According to a recent study, 52% of Americans, including 60% of women and 45% of men, say they would feel "very comfortable" having a female president. A 2008 article, however, said "some polls indicate that 81% of Americans would personally vote for a qualified woman candidate from their party."
Neither of these numbers are as high as they should be. But when you look at them next to how much the male candidates are out-polling and out-fundraising female ones for the 2020 presidential race, it's obvious that people really aren't talking the talk. Look no further than South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg pulling ahead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Iowa, in third place behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders. He has also outearned Warren, bringing in $7 million in the first quarter of 2019 while she brought in $6 million. A late-March Quinnipiac poll shows him tied for fifth place with Warren nationally.
Why are some voters choosing Buttigieg over a policy heavyweight who has brought more exciting and well thought-out ideas to the table than any candidate so far? Like the senator from Massachusetts, he's a capitalist who wants to tax the rich and get big money out of politics. Like Warren, he's also open to abolishing both the Senate filibuster and the Electoral College so Democrats can actually make their proposals happen. But unlike her, he doesn't have a ton of specific details on his plans or experience bringing them to life. "I really like Pete Buttigieg. He is intelligent. He is decent. He is curious," tweeted commentator Jill Filipovic. "But when he says, 'I think that policy matters, I’m a policy guy,' but all of his policies are basically Warren's (except less specific and less progressive), I wonder why he's not working for her." Good question.
A lot of this comes down to Democrats thinking that playing it male means playing it safe, having watched Hillary Clinton lose in 2016 (although that she won the popular vote, in a country that supposedly isn't ready for a woman president, is less discussed). In the above-mentioned 2008 article, called "Subtle Sexism? Examining Vote Preferences When Women Run Against Men for the Presidency," authors David Paul and Jessi L. Smith note that people's perceptions of others' biases tend to color their own voting preferences. Some polls "imply that nearly one-third of Americans believe their 'neighbors' are unwilling to vote for a woman," they write. In other words, as Kate Manne, an assistant professor at Cornell University interpreted it, "I’m not biased, but they might be, so I ought to vote for a man."
This risk-averseness is compounded by mainstream media, which reflects the internalized misogyny of the public. Not only does cable news pay an outsized amount of attention to the white, male candidates — ensuring they stay high in the polls — but print and digital media reporters, a recent study found, tend to describe them more positively.
The Northeastern University School of Journalism analyzed 200 articles, focusing on the five most-read news websites according to Amazon's Alexa: The Washington Post, The New York Times, HuffPo, CNN, and Fox News. Researchers looked at the percentage of positive words used to describe 2020 presidential candidates. The candidates by media sentiment from highest to lowest, were: Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Notice a pattern here?
Words used to describe the female candidates more frequently have to do with their requisite "scandals" — which might not have been such huge "scandals" if they were men. The most egregious example of this is that the top words for Gillibrand are "sexual," "harassment," and "Franken," echoing the misogynistic refrain that she somehow threw former Sen. Al Franken "under the bus" when she called for him to resign. As a reminder, Franken had eight credible accusations of sexual harassment against him, there were other senators calling for his resignation, and he chose to resign himself.
The misogyny in political coverage is made worse by the fact that 70% of political coverage overall and 74% of election news at online news outlets is done by men, according to a new report from the Women's Media Center. It's made even worse when you consider that they seem to exist within an echo chamber: Male political reporters retweet other men three times more than their female colleagues. It's all but guaranteed that most people who tweet this article will be women, when it's the male reporters who need to read it most.
So, why is it that so many people would be happy with a female president but are unwilling to do the legwork? The answer lies somewhere between media bros, internalized misogyny, and "risk-averseness." But now that all of these factors are out in the open, we have no excuse but to address them head-on and, ultimately, do better than we did in 2016.